The north of Israel is a region with a very high religious, historic and natural significance. During my stay in Nazareth, I spent one day visiting the main sites around the Sea of Galilee, including Capernaum, an ancient fishing village where Jesus preached; the Mount of Beatitudes, the biblical site of Jesus' sermon on the mount; the Banyas Natural Reserve with its beautiful waterfalls; as well as Mount Bental in the disputed region of the Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian border and the ceasefire line created after the region was annexed by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Discover what it was like to talk about the conflict in the zone with a UN peacekeeper!
How to visit
The area around the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights has too many sites of significance to organise a one day trip using public transport. Since I don't drive and couldn't hire a rental car, I decided to take the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights Tour from Nazareth by Abraham Tours.
The tour was a fantastic option to cover as much as possible of the region without any hassles. The visit departs at around 7:15am next to Mary's Well in Nazareth, just a few minutes walking from the Fauzi Azar Inn where I was staying.
It's worth mentioning that the tour is not a guided visit; Abraham Tours provides the transportation and a driver that will explain some of the main highlights during the way, however, most of the trip is independent and you will have free time to explore the different places included in the visit.
I actually found this absolutely perfect as I was free to roam around without having to follow a big group. Abraham Tours has an online app that you can download on your phone and that provides lots of information about each stop so that you can read it at your own pace while you're there or on the bus.
After boarding the bus and getting to know my fellow travellers, most of which were staying in the Fazu Azar Inn and I had already met the previous night, we headed towards Capernaum, located about one hour drive from Nazareth.
No city other than Jerusalem is mentioned as many times in the gospels as Capernaum. Its religious significance comes from the fact that Jesus made it his town: here he chose Peter and other apostles, worked many miracles, and pronounced his discourse on the Eucharist in the synagogue.
Capernaum is located on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee, 16km northeast of modern Tiberias and 5km south-east of the upper Jordan River. The original Semitic name Kefar Nahum (meaning “village of Nahum”) is known from a Byzantine inscription found in the synagogue of Hamat-Gader, in some passages of the Mishnah, and as late as the year 1333 when Rabbi Ishak Chelo visited the site.
The ruins cover an area of approximately 6ha, suggesting a population of about 1,500 during the town's maximum expansion. The settlement's centre, which reveals town planning during that period of great prosperity, is marked by the monumental synagogue and of the octagonal church.
The synagogue, one of the oldest in the world dating from the 4th-5th century BC consists of four parts: a praying hall, the western patio, the southern balustrade and a small room on at the north-west. The southern part of the building was facing Jerusalem.
Capernaum was crossed by an imperial highway leading to Damascus. Most probably the highway bypassed the northern flank of Capernaum, in fact, some 100m northeast of the synagogue and close to a monumental Roman mausoleum a milestone was found bearing the name of the Emperor Hadrianus (early 2nd century AD). Capernaum was also a border town that received revenue from collecting customs. Its additional economic resources were fishing, agriculture, industry, and trade.
We also learn from the Gospels that Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum (Mt 4:12) which became “his own town” (Mt 9:1) and the centre of his Messianic activity.
From the community of Capernaum Jesus chose many of his apostles either from fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James and John) or publicans (Matthew). This has made of Capernaum one of the main centres of pilgrimage of the Holy Land, with thousands of Christians travelling from all over the world to visit the ruins of such a significant place.
One of the most important buildings in Capernaum is the Old House of Peter. Back in the 5th century, an octagonal Byzantine church was constructed over the walls of St. Peter's house, where you can still appreciate the central octagon with eight pillars.
In the 1990s, a modern memorial was built above the ruins of the church, also designed in an octagonal form to reproduce the same shape.
Personally, I found the memorial a bit of a sore to the eyes compared to the beautiful ruins of the ancient town of Capernaum.
It's true though that the construction assimilates quite well thanks to the materials they used, trying to reproduce the style and stone of the rest of the ruins. The interior is also way nicer than the ugly exterior, and the vast size inside gives you a very special feeling of tranquillity, but still, I'm not totally convinced by this building. I guess it makes sense to construct a bigger place of worship for the high amount of pilgrims that visit every year, however, for me, it breaks the charm of the place.
After enjoying plenty of time wandering around the ruins and even having some rest while taking in the beautiful views of the Sea of Galilee, we continued to visit another site or religious significance: the Mount of Beatitudes.
Mount of Beatitudes
My next stop was the Mount of Beatitudes, the place where it is believed that Jesus pronounced his famous Sermon on the Mount:
The exact location where the sermon was pronounced is unknown, however, Christian pilgrims commemorate this event at the Church of the Beatitudes.
The church, built on the slope of a mountain, has eight sides that represent the eight beatitudes. In the interior, the altar is surrounded by the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility, all represented with mosaics on the floor.
In the exterior, the church is surrounded by a beautiful garden that includes three altars to facilitate group praying. The gardens are very well taken care of and are just perfect for a relaxed stroll.
Banias Nature Reserve - Hermon Stream
After a bit of religious overload, we stopped to enjoy a brief hike through the wonderful Israeli nature at the Hermon Stream in the Banias Natural Reserve.
The Hermon Spring emerges at the foot of Mount Hermon, whose peak is 2814 meters above sea level. This giant mountain acts like a sponge, absorbing the rain and snow that falls generously upon it. The water percolates through the limestone until it emerges as springs at the foot of the mountain.
These springs create the Dan, Hermon (Banias) and Senir (Hazbani) streams, which are the headwaters of the Jordan, declared a natural reserve in the 1960s.
Just a few minutes downhill from the car park I reached the suspended trail: a walk through a narrow basalt canyon above the rushing Hermon Stream that brings to the impressive Banias Waterfall. I could've stayed forever staring at the crystal-clear water falling down the stream!
Odem Mountain Winery
After a deserved break for lunch, we continued to the Odem Mountain Winery, a boutique family winery established in 2003 at the heart of the Golan Heights. We had the chance to do a wine tasting of their locally made wine, and even though I'm not a big wine person myself, I have to admit that I really enjoyed it!
It was incredibly interesting to learn how kosher wine is produced and try their very tasty wines: the flagship Alfasi wine, the Har Odem Reserve brand, and the Volcanic brand. For a good reason they are exported internationally and have won multiple awards, they were all delicious!
You will definitely enjoy this tasting if you like to indulge yourself with a bit of wine every now and then (or all the time!).
The next stop of my visit was definitely the big highlight of the day, and I'd dare to say one of the most interesting moments of my trip to Israel.
Getting deeper into the Golan Heights, we finally reached Mount Bental.
The Golan Heights have been an area of conflict for decades. Originally a Syrian territory, two-thirds were captured by Israel during the 1968 Six-Day War, when they fought all the neighbouring states: Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and even Iraq.
Today, the western area of the region is still administrated by Israel, while the eastern third is managed by Syria. In order to maintain the peace, the United Nations established a buffer zone in between known as the Purple Line.
From the top of Mount Bental, you can appreciate both sides of the border as well as the territory that divides them.
After a small hike up the mountain, which is a dormant volcano at an elevation of 1,171 meters above the sea, I reached the viewpoint.
When you get to the top, it's easier to understand the strategic position of Mount Bental and why it was essential for Israel to conquer this area during the war.
The panoramic view of the area would give the country a massive advantage in case of attack. If Israel hadn't managed to conquer the mountain, the Arab troops would've been able to enclose the Israeli troops in the lower part of the valley and the results of the war could've been very different.
In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, a massive David-against-Goliath battle took place in this same valley when 150 Israeli tanks managed to hold and fight over 1600 Syrian tanks. Since then, the section of the valley where this event took place is known as the Valley of the Tears.
Nowadays, the area is way calmer and can be visited by tourists, but the United Nations peacekeepers still guard the area. When I first saw the soldiers, I was a bit reticent to get closer to them as they looked incredibly focused monitoring the valley, however, I was quickly surprised at how friendly they were as soon as a tourist got close to them.
They were kind enough to tell us about their daily work in the viewpoint, where they have to be for an entire year as part of a mission. Apparently, their job is very quiet in spite of the war on the other side of the Syrian border. They have heard and seen some people crossing over to Israel from Syria, however, all they can do is report what they see to the Israeli army, they can't really take any military action.
They continued their explanation with how dangerous the line can be for the locals, and how it is almost impossible to cross over to the Syrian side. Apparently, a few days before they saw how a Druze shepherd lost his leg when he stepped by accident on a mine.
Talking to the United Nations peacekeepers was a very eye opening experience about how it is like to work in one of the most disputed areas in the world. They were also giving us their opinion about the Syrian war, and how its end seemed so far away.
Apparently, there are over 60 different guerrillas fighting among each other in Syria, which makes it even harder to find a solution that will please all of them. Without getting into detail, they were also explaining how there are too many international interests in the war coming from very high government positions from all over the world, making the end of the war in Syria far from reality anytime soon.
In spite of the harshness of the conversation with the United Nations peacekeepers, I couldn't help going back to the bus with a vague smile on my face after such a special encounter. I definitely wasn't expecting this at the start of the day!
On the slopes of the mountain, there were also some very interesting sculptures made of military material. I couldn't stop snapping pictures before boarding the bus!
Sea of Galilee
To finish the day, we stopped for a bath at a beach on the Sea of Galilee. It was the perfect way to relax after a long drive in the heat!
It was in the Sea of Galilee where according to the New Testament, Jesus performed one of his miracles when his disciples saw him walking on the sea.
I wasn't able to repeat the miracle myself, but the calm waters were definitely refreshing!
Even though the rest of the group would continue to Nazareth, the bus driver was kind enough to stop me along the way so that I could catch the bus to Jerusalem, the next stop of my trip. There was no direct bus from Nazareth to Jerusalem at that time anymore, so I would've had to change buses in either Tel Aviv or Tiberias, delaying my trip considerably. If you're taking this visit and want to travel to Jerusalem, make sure to bring your luggage with you and the driver will happily stop you on the way and explain how to get to your destination.
I would reach Jerusalem after approximately a 2h30m ride. As soon as I boarded the bus, it was evident that I was travelling to a more conservative part of Israel. On the bus, some of the Orthodox Jews remained standing for several minutes running up and down the aisle as all the available seats were next to a woman.
According to the Orthodox tradition, men and women are not allowed to sit together in order to maintain the decency. It happened a few times that some travellers had to wait until there was a free seat next to a man before they could sit down, or even asked some women to move from their seats and sit next to another woman. I did understand what was going on even though I couldn't speak any Hebrew, but there were a few very confused American tourists that had no idea what was happening there!
Next day, my adventure in the Old City of Jerusalem would start, exploring one of the most fascinating places that I've ever had the pleasure to visit!
All opinions are my own.
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